Dallas wants to plant a park over Preston Center’s garage. The owners want 300 apartments.

Dallas wants to plant a park over Preston Center’s garage. The owners want 300 apartments.

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Late Thursday I spent two hours sitting in a meeting where the only thing on the agenda was a parking garage. #blessed.

Ah, but see, this isn’t any parking garage. This is the Preston Center Parking Garage, center of endless debates, plans and lawsuits over the last couple of decades. An 800-spot garage owned by Dallas City Hall but controlled by the surrounding property owners. A garage, cracked and cavernous, in dire need of repairs lest it come tumbling down in chunks.

And, most important, a garage gobbling up three acres of valuable land whose do-over would dramatically reshape the area along the borders of Preston Hollow and University Park. That will be especially true if the poster-board dreamscape I saw Thursday night at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center becomes a reality.

Out of nowhere, this is what the landowners now say they want to build on top of the city’s land: 300 high-price apartments jutting out of the middle of Preston Center in a building perched on top of a five-story garage, two of its levels buried below ground. At ground level would be two teensy patches of park; at the top, a restaurant and with some green space accessible only by elevator.

What they are proposing looks like someone dipped their Uptown in my Preston Center. The public green imagined by the task force is now hidden, elevated, accessible only to people who know it’s there — residents, diners, pilots.

Up front I must admit that during my countless sojourns to Preston Center, I’ve never given this concrete carbuncle — the lower level of which is midnight-dark even at noon-thirty — too much thought. Because there’s either on-street parking or copious space in the structure plopped in the center of a Preston Center that looks like an aging suburb’s downtown that was last given a face-lift in 1962. A parking study conducted in 2016, during the making of the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Area Plan, concluded there is always a parking space in Preston Center. Always.

Only, this is not about just parking cars. In the words of the great Hobie Doyle, would that it were so simple.

I went into council member Jennifer Staubach Gates’ packed-house meeting at the Walnut Hill Recreation Center naively thinking this was just an update about an agreed-upon plan to sink the existing garage and bury some 1,000 spots beneath a park. That felt like a reasonable expectation. An underground parking lot capped with a park is what the Preston Center task force agreed to more than two years ago, after many months of meetings that could be at once entertainingly contentious —mostly because my old colleague and our former mayor Laura Miller was on the task force— and dreary-dull.

In fact, the Northwest Highway and Preston Road Advisory Task Force’s final report in November 2016 declared the underground option to be "the optimal solution" that would "would literally change the landscape in Preston Center, creating a highly desirable centerpiece for the entire neighborhood."

That agreement is also why the city set aside $10 million in 2017 bond money for a "Northwest Highway/Preston Parking/Transportation Interface." The North Central Texas Council of Governments has agreed to match that money, too.

This is what the city and COG are proposing to build where the Preston Center parking garage now sits. Not an apartment building in sight.

For months, consultants hired by the COG have crawled all over Preston Center to figure out if the underground-garage-topped-by-a-park concept will work and how much it will cost. Mallory Baker of Walker Consultants made it sound as though of three options under consideration — small and big and ginormous — a buried garage with 1,200 spots probably made the most sense. She said that garage would allow for added density at Preston Center "and a little cushion." Such a garage would cost around $48 million, give or take, with the park sucking up around $7 million of that.

Which, between the city and COG’s contribution, would leave a $30-million-ish funding gap.

But I don’t think that matters. Because I am fairly certain, after Thursday night’s meeting, the buried parking garage that had the task force’s support will never happen.

That is because the property owners, the so-called Preston Center West Parking Corp., do not want it. Even if some do, it does not matter. As the result of a legal dust-up with the city, settled several years ago, all of the owners must agree on a solution to the garage problem. Every single one.

And "100 percent of us are completely against" the park-and-buried-parking concept, David Claassen told the meeting last night. The owner of the Einstein Bros. Bagels building, among other Preston Center plots, was acting as the group’s de facto spokesman.

Claassen warned of a coming apocalypse should the city plant a park at ground level: Retailers, he said, "would die." Then they would leave, replaced with "lower-caliber tenants," he said. Then, he was sure, the "landlords would get sued."

The owners, Claassen said, will only support the apartment-capped, 2,400-space structure pitched by Robert Dozier, whose company now owns the old Sangers building home to the recently opened pocket-sized Target, the DSW shoe-seller and the CVS, among other chains.

Here is Robert Dozier showing off his renderings Thursday night. Yes. That’s Preston Center.

Dozier showed off renderings Gates said later she had only seen for the first time Wednesday. Dozier said his proposal was "a hundred-year fix," especially if "the ultimate goal is the densification of Preston Center." Claassen told me later it was a "win-win for everybody."

Especially, I guess, the auto industry, which will probably still be churning out cars in 2119.

The landowners, too, who would get control of the center square, would take the city and COG’s $20 million and then use city incentives to build atop a parking garage the park Dallas wants to put on the ground, where parks tend to belong (save for Klyde Warren, for which you do not an elevator to visit). We were reminded again and again this was only conceptual. But it’s also a deal-breaker.

I asked Gates and the consultants later, what now? Because you can’t keep the garage as-is. And the landowners would rather build their own ATM than take the city’s green space. And no one knows the answer yet. Because all these years later, Preston Center is still caught in limbo — trapped by its past, paralyzed by its future.

"The status quo can’t stand," Gates said. "We can do better."

Can we?

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Marcia Mosley